If the coalition is committed to families, why are maternity services being cut?

The strain of austerity is beginning to show on maternal care provision.

Recent news that the health of pregnant women and new mothers is being negatively impacted as a result of the coalition’s budget cuts strikes an odd note:  like them or loathe them, if there’s one thing you can rely on Conservatives for, it’s proclaiming their allegiance to the family. When the brutality of the cuts began to show in areas like refugee services or young people from non-privileged backgrounds no longer applying to university, there was at least the grim ring of consistency – have the Tories ever credibly claimed to care about such constituencies? Similarly, when feminist groups like the Fawcett Society demonstrated that women were facing a double-burden of the recession and government cuts in the workplace, one didn’t need to stretch one’s imagination too far to place this in the broader picture of a Conservative Party who seems to prefer women both at home and "in their place". “Families” though, were safe in the arms of the Conservatives’ paternal concern. Never mind that the whole gamut of austerity measures, from the game-changing overhaul of higher education to the cutting up of the NHS, daily and tangibly corrode the wellbeing and future prospects of parents, children, communities – families, in short, of one kind or another.  Still the amorphous ideal of the "traditional" family unit was one the governing party claims to hold close to its heart.

It’s striking, then, that the latest area in which the government’s cuts are being felt is in maternal care. Framing its concern largely in terms of children, the Daily Mail (that other "family" cheerleader) recently reported that breastfeeding rates have been directly hit by the cuts to healthcare services, citing research by health data analysts SSentif that post-natal women living in areas where cuts to maternity services have come into effect are more likely to stop breastfeeding in the first eight weeks, due to lack of available support from midwives and healthcare visitors. Given the wealth of scientific evidence on the life-long benefits, for children, of being breastfed, the logic follows that there may likely be a long-term negative impact on a future generation’s health.

The blog FalseEconomy has detailed further reasons for, and consequences of, the increased strain on maternal care provision, including demographic shifts towards later pregnancies as a reason for an increase in "complex pregnancies" taking more time for midwives, and the "knock on" effect of cuts in other areas such as violence against women provisions and services to the homeless. It cites the Royal College of Midwives’ State of Maternity Services report to lend credence to the claim that the government cuts have combined with demographic changes to stretch maternity services beyond their capacity. The Valuing Maternity campaign by Maternity Action is calling for greater commitment from the government to ensure this vital aspect of public health is addressed.

Aside from the inherent concern of the reduction in maternal care, and the worrying evidence suggesting its impact on a decline in breastfeeding, the example of the over-stretching of reduced maternal services is also a chilling reminder that no reduction of a public service happens in a vacuum. Women’s experiences of the recession are a prime example of the knock-on effect of one area of government policy to another, and how the recession and the cuts introduced under the guise of "austerity" have combined to corner women into a position of less work, less pay, fewer benefits and fewer rights. (Meanwhile urgent calls to address issues such as gender-inequities in public life and pre-recession concerns about the continuing pay gap are dismissed as a luxury "in these difficult times". As Susan Faludi outlined so eloquently in The Terror Dream’s analysis of the Bush-Blair years, that women’s concerns were dismissed along the lines of “not now dear, there’s a war on”, in the post-financial crisis era this is modified: not "now dear, it’s the austerity – but we’re all in this together"). 

Not only was this the first feminised recession in terms of the sectors hit hardest by job losses, but measures introduced under the guise of "austerity" doubly-targeted women, as women were both a larger proportion of public sector workers with jobs on the line, and some of the main users of state-provided services. (To add a further grim footnote: just as women needed financial independence the most, research from IPPR suggests that banks, too, turned on women, arbitrarily denying mortgages and other loans to female customers, using the new excuse of "new stricter regulations").

Eventually, as the new evidence on maternal health provision in the UK indicates, the knock-on effect manifests even in an area the Conservatives claim as their own: protecting the "family" and women as child-bearers. The painful cycle being played out in dominoes as one service after another is gutted by the cuts reveals the inherent flaw even in ideologically-driven cuts – while wealth may not trickle-down, corrosion of communities and services does trickle up, and into areas the Tories claim are their priority.

It also reveals what a sham it is to say you care about "families" when your policies show little if any concern for women.

Follow Heather McRobie on Twitter as @heathermcrobie.

 

A young boy is weighed after being born in an NHS maternity unit in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images
OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.